grand central

Mowgli, Grand Central, Birmingham

I think it was the keema curry that sent me careering over the edge. I was sat alone, sipping on my Estrella whilst forking out huge clumps of tepid lamb mince from the silver tin. Once someone had caught wind of the sadness in my eyes they would go on to tell me that these balls are normal. They are not, I tell them, they have occurred because the meat hasn’t been broken up enough during the frying process, and anyway, it is still cold. They apologise for me not enjoying and depart to a different table. Minutes later someone else is over, probably because they’ve cottoned on to the fact that all might not be well with the guy eating alone and taking pictures of his dinner. Would I like another lamb keema curry? No. Would I like to try a different lamb curry? Okay, though I needn’t have bothered.

This all took place in Mowgli, the latest in a long list of Indian street food type places to hit Birmingham, and very possibly my least favourite of them all. I took exception from the first steps into the restaurant, where the light is set to a year-long winter with the mood to match. There are empty jars which line the walls and a row of tables visible from the outside that have swings for chairs. It is an interior where Instagram has been given as much consideration as practicality. The menu, too, has that infuriating speech of chip butties and bombs, with a tiffin that is a ‘food roulette’ of ‘meat, veg, and carb jeopardy’. I order this, hoping that one of the four dishes contains the bullet.

Brushing aside the barely warm lumps of sheep that is the returned house keema, the other three quarters of the stack contain rice, ginger chicken, and a ginger and rhubarb dhal. The roulette must love ginger and hate me. The rice and ginger chicken are okay, the latter of those warming with okay meat, and spicing that sits in the boring middle section between elegant and crude. The dhal is a horrible, acrid thing with lentils cooked to a mush normally associated with God’s waiting room, or worse, a bingo hall. Nothing has the delicate touch of someone who understands spice. I honestly prefer the food of my Indian-obsessed, cookery school taught, girlfriend.

The replacement lamb curry arrives within seconds of them taking the keema away, giving the suspicion that the food has been cooked a long time ago and kept warm in bain-maries. It has a heavy dose of anise and not much else, with lamb that would work the tightest of jawlines. The additional side of puri breads are usually one of my favourite things. Here they are greasy and heavy in texture. Much of what was ordered remains when I ask for the bill which arrives with both a service charge and charity donation. How very kind of me.

As I pay the thirty-odd quid my mind wanders out of the doors to the Indian Streatery one hundred metres away. It was here, a couple of weeks ago, that we ordered a mini-feast of smokey bhartha, a methi chicken laced with fenugreek, chicken pakora burgers, home style curries, and chaats. All of it a million miles away in class to the food served here. Mowgli may have the aura of a heavily-backed, fast expanding empire, but it is missing the beating heart. It feels contrived; a concept with the sole purpose of rolling out and selling on. I can’t be a part of that, not when there is a family doing it so much better around the corner.

5/10

Transport provided by A2B Radio Cars

Holy Moly Macaroni, Birmingham

In opening their inaugural branch in Grand Central, Holy Moly Macaroni have really laid out their plans. There is to be no settling in period; no slow burn of customers led by word-of-mouth to a discreet sign on a backstreet. They have positioned themselves in one of the city’s busiest thoroughfares; the gateway to our central train station, in amongst the chains that dominate the food court. They want to be seen, with the open façade a crash of neon that has attracted a waiting crowd like flies to a light. In that respect the gamble of high rents has already paid off. Where else would have them queuing out the door a little over a week since opening?

Now we can praise the audacity of a new independent and leave it there, or we can face facts about the quality of the food they are serving. I won’t be rushing back to join that queue anytime soon. It was fine, in exactly the same way that you say ‘fine’ when the waiter asks and it really isn’t. The issue is a pretty big one; for a restaurant that has built a menu around macaroni cheese, the main event is a let-down. Overcooked pasta, coated in a grainy sauce that tastes as much of uncooked flour as it does of the alleged four cheese blend that appears to have three of them missing in action. We choose a ‘Cluckin’ Hot’, yours for £10.50 with the addition of two sorry pieces of cheese topped garlic bread. The macaroni is beaten into submission by pieces of Cajun chicken, Sriracha sauce and jalapeños. We finish it all without really enjoying it. It is that kind of meal.

A dish without pasta fares marginally better. Chicken and waffles is fairly satisfying stuff; okay, the quality of the chicken isn’t the greatest, but the waffle is light in texture and it’s not been drowned in maple syrup. Apologies for the lack of action in this post; any excitement about the prospect of writing it died during the eating. We wash them down with a couple of cans of Brooklyn lager and leave, £30 lighter than when we started.

It was a meal that did nothing but make me miss the mac and cheese from Pure Bar, where it is cheesier and richer and cheaper. I wanted to love it, to embrace the ambition of taking on the big boys in their own yard, but I can’t. It’s simply not good enough at present. Sure, I expect that the bright lights will continue to bring the queues, but I’ll be elsewhere enjoying an assured meal, waiting for them to improve.

5/10

Transport provided by A2B Radio Cars

Pho, Grand Central, Birmingham

For a country that gets as hot as Vietnam does, Pho really is a curious national dish for them to have. It is, when you strip it back, a stock soup and noodles. Yes you can add chillies to give it fire, finish it with the sour crash of lime juice, or freshen it up with numerous herbs, but what lies at the heart is a dish as consoling as Jewish chicken soup with matzo, and as comforting as Heinz cream of tomato soup with crusty bread. Eating Pho in Vietnam is visceral, a cheap affair that usually involves tiny plastic chairs at roadside. The humidity and air pollution pushes the sweat out though the pores of the skin, the hydration replacement a cheap bottle of Saigon beer. You want nourishing; need it even. The environment demands it.

It is only when you take it out of natural habitat that you see it in all its glory. Pho is the Lego of stock soups; you can build it as you please. In Vietnam I added everything, whereas now I tailor it to the seasons. Always herbs and beansprouts, more lime and fish sauce the hotter it gets, more chilli sauce and oil to clear the cold from my bones. As a dish it is more versatile than Gareth Barry; it’s just a question of playing it in the right position from game-to-game. I think I’ve nailed it.

My point of call is always its namesake. There are other places, but they tend to deploy the Asian route of cooking the protein until the point it becomes a bushtucker trial, as opposed to dinner. Here the only thing that is anglicised is the meat, which is decent in quality and spared of boiling point. Today my airways call for a regional variation from the Imperial city of Hue. It has chicken stock that tastes of chicken (a rarity of late), with delicately cooked chicken, and noodles that have bounce and bite. The dish is stained red with large quantities of chilli oil that sends it scuttling northwards into the Sichuan region of China. It is a bloody good dinner. As good as stock and noodles and meat gets in this city, a statement that will upset those who believe that chains can never be as good as independents. Rubbish. Good and bad exist in both sectors of the restaurant industry, and Pho is firmly in the former category.

Now prior to this we had greaseless spring rolls that with pork and veg, and gobstopper sized deep fried balls of pork and lemongrass that are just about gummy enough to remind me of Hoi An. How I miss you, Hoi An. And then, whilst I am elbow deep in the pho, my lovely girlfriend is smashing through fried noodles with chicken and prawns. It tastes authentic. I could almost be in Vietnam if it wasn’t for the train announcements happening on the level below. And the cold wind howling through the door. Very nearly Vietnam.

Before I get to dessert, a word on my alcoholic tendencies. Being a day of the week, I get stuck into the booze. The pick is the martini/Vietnamese coffee hybrid cocktail that has me all weak in the knees, though its lovely to have Saigon beer and Beer Lao so readily available. Dessert is banana fritters with honey and ginger ice cream. The batter is sturdy so that the fruit inside has a chance to cook through, the ice cream rich and sweet. It is a great way to finish a meal.

Now my adoration to the country of origin means I eat Pho more than the next man, and I come here a lot. I come because the service is sharp and the food consistent. It allows me to dip in and out of my favourite country in the world. It’s not perfect, but then neither is Vietnam. Pho as a chain get it; they take the memories of Vietnam and put them in one spot; the noodle soups and the wok dishes, the Vietnamese coffee thickened with condensed milk, those crisp beers that work so well under the sun. I’m a fan. They have a product that very clearly works.

Transport was provided by A2B Radio Cars. Download the app here http://www.a2bradiocars.com

Tapas Revolution, Birmingham

I wont go into detail about my initial opinion of Tapas Revolution, but suffice to say it wasn’t particularly pleasant. It was a let down of a meal, a distance away from the food I had been told to expect from Omar Allibhoy, poster boy of Spanish cooking for a certain Gordan Ramsay.  But that was a year ago, back when Tapas Revolution joined a host of other similar sized businesses in the colossal launch that is Grand Central.  I’d heard since then that they had hit their stride, the quality of ingriedients starting to be backed-up by some consistent cooking from the open kitchen.

003

I’ve been back and am pleased to say it is better, significantly so in fact.  Everything we ate was a marked step up from the early visits, more spritely and heavily punctuated with seasoning. The paella has transformed from a one note wonder into an authentic reproduction, still heavy on saffron though now deeply savoury.  Bread comes smeared with a pungent garlic sauce and draped with thin slivers of serrano ham which more than stands up for itself amongst the big flavours.  Okay, perhaps the patatas bravos could have had crisper spuds and more of the tomato sauce, but these are small pickings.

002

005

From the new menu we try three of the five recently added dishes.  The lamb is a let down; a distance away from the pink we were promised with a spring onion, radish and pomegranate dressing that fails to add anything.  We leave half the portion untouched.  Deep fried pastries with goats cheese and spinach are moreish bites which are enhanced by a saffron marmalade that adds a nice counteractive balance, whilst a salad of butternut squash and manchego is enhanced by a raisin and pine nut vinaigrette that lifts everything around it.  Its clever touches like this that make me like a place.

009

007

004

Chorizo braised in cider reaches us so hot that the ceramic bowl is cracking in front of us.  We take this as a cue to pile it on to bread, steeping it with the thickened sauce.  It’s a wise move.  The chorizo is properly meaty, the cider sauce an almost British choice of accompaniment that cuts through the sausage.  Best of all is cod, baked until the flesh is just cooked and the peppers and olives underneath are blistered and charred.  Its a super bit of cooking, the tang and metallic notes of the veg working well with the fish.

006

008

010

We finish with churros and a chocolate dipping sauce, where the deep fried and sugared pastry hit a higher note than the slightly thin sauce.  The service, much like the food, was charming and warm.  Overall I was quite impressed with Tapas Revolution, initially leaving me to think that I had possibly been over harsh on my first visit.  Talking to others I don’t think that I have; I am not alone with my assessment that it has improved, and that itself is an achievement for a group which continues to grow.  For those looking for a feed in the centre of Birmingham you could do far worse than eat here.  Its certainly the best cooking to be found in Grand Central

7/10

Tapas Revolution Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

 I was invited to eat at Tapas Revolution

Pho, Birmingham

A year ago I went on a three week, whistle-stop tour of Vietnam. It’s a country that I quickly fell in love with, full of welcoming people, beautiful landscapes and unique heritage. I found the cuisine to be compelling, making extensive use of aromatics and heat to create exotic dishes that linger in the mouth and memory.  I loved every second of it.  Yet, it has become almost impossible to find Vietnamese food back in Blighty.  EAT done there take on Banh Mi with predictably car crash results and now we have Pho, a small chain of London based restaurants, within the confides of Birmingham’s own Grand Central.

Pho, somewhat unsurprisingly given the name, focuses on its namesake dish, which is essentially a stock soup with noodles and meat.  The best we tried in Vietnam had noodles with oodles of bounce (sorry), and a soup full of savoury meaty notes.  You get a side dish from which to add fish sauce, chilli, coriander and lime to taste, which for me was an excess of everything.  As my girlfriend pointed out in Hoi An; if the Pho tastes bad it is probably your fault for ruining it.  The chicken version at Pho was good, though the stock soup was lacking in the depth of flavour which we became accustomed to.  What was infinitely better was the meat, which had none of the chewiness from birds used of an older age in South East Asia.

009

There was a Pho Xao, a noodle stir fry not a million miles away from the more familiar Pad Thai, that was full of crunch and lemon grass notes.  Again, as with the Pho itself, it felt like an anglicised version of what we were used to, lacking the fire of chilli and the extensive use of fresh herbs.  Far better were deep fried vegetarian spring rolls with a brittle casing and vibrant filling.  The thick peanut dipping sauce it came with was good enough to take home and meet the parents before settling down for a life of happiness.

007

008

011

They serve the wonderful Saigon beer which took us took us back to the sun and Vietnamese style coffee which did nothing of the sort.  All this came to around thirty quid, which is seems fair for Birmingham and about six times too much from Vietnam.  Still, at least here we have the exotic views of New Street Station.  For what’s its worth I liked Pho, maybe not enough to be a regular, but certainly enough to swing by when I need my Vietnam fix.

7/10

Pho Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

 

 

Tapas Revolution, Birmingham

For those familiar with the old New Street Station and Pallasades shopping centre, the new look station and Grand Central are a breath of fresh air. What was once a concrete block of misery is now a spacious white dome straight out of a Stanley Kubrick dream.  Its detractors may complain about the lack of independent business within the curved walls and they are right in doing so, but I remember just how shit the shops were in the Pallasades. Call me whatever you want, but I will gladly now take Cath Kidston over Gimme Gizmo, and John Lewis over Poundland.

The same argument appears to have been rolled out for the restaurants here.  Walking around the open plan floor it does feel a little predictable with the usual suspects of nationwide brands and a smattering of smaller groups still trying to find their feet outside the stampede that is London.  It is one of these smaller brands, Tapas Revolution, that would feed us tonight.  I am sorry if you have come here looking for your corporate fix, though if you want to read someone trying to ascertain just how cheeky a Nando’s really is, please do me a favour and never visit this page again.

012

Tapas Revolution already feels polished enough to be in every city.  They have a glossy brand, modern interior and counter seats.  More importantly they have a menu that screams ‘EAT ME’ in every possible way at a price that wont break the bank.  There is proper hams from the correct pigs, regional dishes such a Asturian sausage and the promise of a lot of garlic.  I want to love it but I cant.  Everything we try was flat in flavour and lacking in love.

011

Take the paella.  At best it is a textural delight of rice – some bits crispy, others tender – heavy on the flavours of chicken stock and saffron.  Here it was one level of overcooked rice and metalic saffron, with meagre pieces of chicken and green beans.  It is under seasoned to the point that I fail to detect any salt at all – a problem which would repeat itself nearly as much as the alioli the following day.

019

The disappointments never stopped there.  Pisto should have been the Murcia version of caponata; a punchy salty, sweet and sour display of mediterranean veg at their best.  Nothing.  If my doctor ever tells me to cut salt out of my diet I will show him this dish and load the revolver for him.  We make the most out of a bad situation by piling it on to bread smeared with alioli overloaded with intense garlic.  A tortilla with potato and onion suffered similar levels of blandness.

018

013

016

014

015

Perhaps the best thing we ate was hot croquettes, big on ham flavour and deep fried to a crisp exterior.  These and a potato, chorizo and egg dish indicated that there was a degree of skill in the kitchen, though just how much is debatable.  The bill at £35 with a couple of beers puts it in the same bracket as the brilliant Rico Libre.  I know which one I would choose.  If convenience is your thing, please head to the domed roofs of New Street Station.  If its big, gutsy Spanish cooking is what you are looking for take a left at the stairs of the station and keep walking until you hit Digbeth.

5/10

Tapas Revolution Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato